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Syria's lost boys -- why the Geneva peace talks represent the future of a generation

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Oujelan, 13, works from sun up to sun down each day harvesting grapes in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, to help provide for his family. He comes home each day exhausted and tired. When he was in school, he earned the highest marks and congratulatory certificates. Now he hopes someday to return to school and become an Arabic teacher. (Lauren Fisher/World Vision)

Absi punches the clock at an auto mechanic shop. Saad earns his keep stacking concrete bricks. And Khalil is a restaurant worker, clearing tables as people come and go.

All respectable wage earners. Each a breadwinner for his family. All of them not even 11 years old.

These are the lost boys of Syria. Boys turned into men by war. And there are so many of them.

I recently spent a month in Jordan and Lebanon, working for humanitarian organization World Vision in Jordan and Lebanon, responding to the vast swell of refugees from the Syria conflict. 

Nearly everywhere I went, I found another boy with another story of childhood left behind. For many, that means substituting work for school.

Nearly everywhere I went, I found another boy with another story of childhood left behind.

Like 13-year old-Oujelan. He arrives home after a 12-hour day in the fields, his hands and the knees of his jeans crusted with mud. His mother proudly brings out symbols of his former life to show the student he was before the conflict. Brightly colored exam certificates covered in stickers and Teenage Mutant Ninja turtles boast of his excellence in school. Oujelan looks at them at least once a week to remember his friends and what he left behind when he and his family were forced to run for their lives, fleeing Syria and moving to Lebanon.

Others are too young to have any memory of school or even playtime. 4-year-old Saad helps his family stack concrete bricks each day. For each 100 bricks they produce, they earn $8. Something that often takes the family a day’s work or more.

During a break in the work we spot a big red plastic fire truck. At one time it was Saad’s favorite plaything. But now he just stares at it as it sits on the floor. We lift the ladder and push the siren button, but he just looks at us, lost.

“I think he has forgotten how to play,” his mother says, turning away to hide the tears. It’s hard to imagine a parent having to make that choice. To tell your four year old to put down the toys and go out to work so the family can eat and pay rent. But for Saad and his family, it’s a matter of survival.

Behind each child is a mother without a choice; a family out of options. A recent inter-agency study found that a child is the primary source of income for 15 percent of all families who have fled to Jordan. In nearly half of all households reporting income, a child is contributing part of the money.

The reasons for this are many – for some families, the father is still back in Syria fighting or has been killed in the conflict. 

For others, a child can get hired more easily than an adult because they will take lower wages. With children, there are often fewer problems with paperwork since most Syrian refugees are not allowed to work in neighboring countries legally. 

But in each family I spoke with, the decision comes with a quiet desperation and a clear understanding of what is lost.

“I am proud of him, but it makes me sad, because he is not getting to act his age,” Ahmad’s mother says. 13-year-old Ahmad works in an electrical shop each night to earn money. Lately he has become so sick from the stress, he no longer attends school.

For many boys, growing up too quickly also changes how they play or relax with friends. When they do have a free moment, their favorite game is war, complete with whatever they can find as guns. Their main ambition is having a chance to grow up and join the fight.  To get revenge on those who’ve taken so much from them.

But whether it’s games of war, nightmares, or missing out on school to go to work, the stakes are clear – the future of these children will directly impact the future of Syria and stability of the region. 

These lost boys are the next generation, the ones who will be running things someday.

Like 12-year-old Jomaa. When the subject of school comes up he points to his younger siblings.

“What about them? They have never had a chance to even learn to read or write,” he challenges. He explains how he wants to run his own school, and how he would tell the children not to run away, but to appreciate the education given to them.

It’s children like Jomaa, with his drive for equality and understanding of the power of education, who could be the future leaders. They are Syria’s best chance to rise above conflict and repair the society torn apart by civil war.

But first we need to be there to support them. The United Nations has just launched a $1 billion humanitarian appeal to save Syria’s "Lost Generation." It’s money that can be used to give children like Jomaa the remedial education support he needs so he can return to school. Money to help feed Ahmad’s family so doesn’t have to worry about working for bread. It has the potential to make a huge difference for millions of children. But it’s all also just a temporary solution.

Above all else the children of Syria need peace. Only then can they return to the stability of their schools and homes. 

Only then do their fathers and mothers have a chance at making a living so that their children’s don’t have to. 

Many believe the best chance for peace will be the Geneva II talks on January 22. 

We can only hope when world leaders come together they don’t see a complicated conflict with no clear solution or a country splintered without hope, but rather a generation of boys lost, waiting for the world to step in so they can find their future and a way home.

Lauren Fisher is emergency communications manager for World Vision.